“Civil courage is needed – everywhere”

Psychologist Anna Baumert and her team are trying to identify personality traits that enable people to intervene courageously in the face of injustice

January 15, 2018

Showing civil courage is not easy. However, at a time when populism is on the rise, civil courage and the ability to intervene on behalf of others are needed more than ever. But why do we hesitate to stand up for justice so often? And what distinguishes civilly courageous people from others? Anna Baumert and her team are trying to find answers to these questions. One thing is certain: we can learn how to intervene astutely and constructively in any situation – even relatively minor ones.

Ms Baumert, the reporting on civil courage, particularly in the press, is often sensational. What is your focus?

Civil courage constantly features on the radar of public interest. This may make the topic familiar on a general level but our focus is on basic research. What we study are situations in which someone does something wrong, breaks rules or behaves immorally – and is observed by a third party. The psychological processes and mechanisms that govern whether someone intervenes against a perpetrator of injustice probably differ from those that dictate whether you will help a stranger lying on the street or in a car park, for example.

How much civil courage do people have then?

Far fewer people intervene when an injustice occurs than we would assume. And I include myself here. I would like to think that I would be willing to intervene in an effective way if I found myself in a challenging situation. But the research confirms that just because I think I would intervene does not necessarily mean that I would. This discrepancy makes the research on this topic particularly fascinating. 

Is there a type of person who will always help?

There are people who are convinced that they can deal very competently with new situations, who have a high level of what we call self-efficacy. It could be assumed that these people find it easier to act with civil courage. Our findings up to now show that they would not hesitate to intervene in the hypothetical cases we describe. However, a person’s self-efficacy does not appear to play any role in real situations.

Why so?
We carried out comparative research: we described a situation to the participants and then we put them in the actual situation. It became clear that there are very considerable discrepancies between the intention to intervene and actual intervention. Many people overestimate their willingness or capacity to act. They overestimate their commitment and their courage. Only a very small minority actually intervene. The intensity with which people act is also considerably lower than their self-assessment would suggest.

There are always people who intervene in difficult situations. What makes them different?

We can only offer some assumptions about this at this point.

First and foremost, a moral disposition is involved: how much attention a person pays to moral issues, how important their moral principles to them, how strongly they tend to react with negative emotions when they experience injustice or immorality. It is also a question of impulsivity: how strong is the impulse to have to intervene immediately in certain situations?

In addition to this, it is possible that the willingness to break learned societal rules also has a role to play here. Most of us have learned to behave in a controlled way, to regulate our emotions and leave other people in peace.

So these societal norms ensure that many people don’t intervene?

Precisely, this is what we suspect. In situations in which there is a perpetrator who could be stopped, you have to go against many learned conventions. That is not very easy.

What’s more, it is often unclear whether a person’s intervention is justified or not.

With civilly courageous action, there is clearly the risk of blaming someone wrongly – and putting yourself in an embarrassing situation as a result. Intervening can be just as much of a mistake as not intervening. You must ultimately ask yourself what the consequences of different ‘mistakes’ would be.

Must I feel bad if I do not intervene?

From a psychological perspective, there are many obstacles that make non-intervention understandable, even if they do not necessarily justify it. It should be clear to everyone, however, that their behaviour has consequences for that of others. If you remain inactive yourself, you run the risk that others will behave in the same way.

Does this also mean, conversely, that when others will join me I intervene?

Not necessarily. You have to weigh up each situation individually. We recommend that you should not get involved in every situation immediately. Otherwise you can put yourself in very serious danger.

What should you do when a challenging situation arises?

Basically what the police recommend: approach other people and draw their attention to the injustice being perpetrated. You should form alliances and get help, and then make yourself available as a witness.

You would like to develop a characterology of courageous helpers with the help of your study. A lot of research has already been carried out on civil courage. What is different about your study?

The majority of the previous research is based on hypothetical scenarios: situations involving injustice are described to people and they are asked how they would react to them. The problem with this methodological approach is that the answers may bear no relation to what happens in reality.

We only invite people to participate in our study who have shown civil courage in the past. They include people who have been honoured in Germany for their actions. We also launched a general appeal for participants. (www.coll.mpg.de/studie_persoenlichkeit). The participants must have experienced injustice as bystanders and have intervened in some way.

Everyone who meets these criteria receives a questionnaire from us that consists of two parts and can be completed online. The first part takes between 15 and 30 minutes. The participants are asked about the situation in which they intervened or took action. Two weeks later, they are then invited to participate in a second part of the study which takes around two hours with breaks. The evaluation is anonymous.

There are schools in Germany that offer training in civil courage. Do these centres not have a lot of experience with character building?

These schools are undoubtedly good and helpful. And the trainers work with many different people there. What we are doing, however, is basic research, and I am certain that our findings are also of relevance for this kind of training.

There are many films on YouTube showing people who show civil courage. What do you think of them?

In my view the knowledge gain from these films, which are often recorded using hidden cameras, is minimal. Moreover, the approach is ethically questionable. In most cases, the ‘participants’ do not know that they are being filmed and have not given their permission for the material to be used. It is important that people are told – at least afterwards. And not just those directly involved but also any passers-by. Many people do not realise when a situation was faked.

Can you learn to act with civil courage?

That is a very individual matter. What is certain is that you do not have to experience a major case of conflict to do so. Civil courage is needed everywhere. – in schools, in neighbourhoods and in the workplace. There are many minor situations in which you can intervene against injustice. You can learn to be more aware of injustice everywhere.

Interview by Martin Roos.


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